Archive for the ‘NZ History’ Category

14 Films About New Zealand.

June 4, 2017

 Sam Neil, Sleeping Dogs (1977)


I tried to count all the feature films ever made in New Zealand but I have never been very good with numbers and got about halfway through the list before I lost my place. By the time I fumbled the third go I was over it so lets just say about 250 films have been made in New Zealand including television films and big screen feature films. This includes a handful of overseas productions that have been made entirely here and excludes dozens of others (mostly Hollywood and Bollywood) that have been partially made here.

The first feature was by Gaston Méliès brother of legendary pioneering French film director Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon 1902). The Méliès brothers were struggling financially and Gaston was sent out into the wider world in search of the exotic and hopefully a reversal of fortune. It didn’t work but Gaston managed to make three fictional narratives, one feature documentary and a series of documentary shorts.

The first of these was a film called Hinemoa (1913) of which no copies survive, but it’s the example that matters here. Gaston inspired the locals and in 1914 the first NZ film proper was made. This was also called Hinemoa and was based on the same story about a Maori princess and her lover. That we made any movies at all so early on is a miracle in itself considering the lack of population, resources and technology but that’s Kiwi’s for you – always keen to try new things using whatever is at hand.

It took until the 1980s for the industry to fully engage and another 20 years for it to build up a full head of steam. These days it is a major industry and is pumping out a regular diet of art, box office and blockbuster, some of it successful, some not.

As for the best of this New Zealand film, I am offering a subjective list that is mostly way off beam with the mainstream of thinking on the subject. A good friend, an authority in fact, thinks my Kiwi favourites are mostly ludicrous but to be fair, while his list is politically ‘correct’ it is also hard work as in “bloody hell, these films are difficult to watch.” We agree to disagree.

Except for Once Were Warriors nothing from the nations ‘go to’ agency – ‘New Zealand on Screen’ – is on my list. ‘New Zealand on Screen’ is a taxpayer-funded archive of all things film and television and the essential guide to New Zealand’s screen heritage.


NZ on Screen – List of Essential New Zealand Films:


Goodbye Pork Pie (1981)

Smash Palace (1981)

Utu (1983)

Vigil (1984)

The Piano (1993)

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Once Were Warriors (1994)

Whale Rider (2002)




14 Films About New Zealand.


Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1983).

Dairy farmer Arthur Allen Thomas is accused of murdering his neighbours Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. The police can’t prove it so fix the evidence and have Thomas put away. Years of re-trails and government commissions follow before Thomas is finally set free and richly compensated.

For almost a decade this story gripped the nation and the whole sordid affair is neatly summed up in a film renowned film critic Roger Ebert called “remarkable”. The case has never been solved.






Bad Blood (1982).

Dairy farmer Stanley Graham is under pressure. He snaps and starts shooting people. Seven bodies later and Graham’s rampage is over. Based on actual events from the summer of 1941 this economical portrait of a man being undone by paranoia is a triumph for both British director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Aussie actor Jack Thompson (Graham).

PS No accident that two of films on this list are set on dairy farms. Dairy is our biggest brand and the farm can be an interesting place. Worth a look is fantasy/romance The Price of Milk (2000) and sheep farming drama Mahana (2016). The latter features the endlessly reliable Temuera Morrison (Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors).






Out Of The Blue (2006)

In 1998 a man wrestling with demons and paranoia starts shooting the people of Aramoana. David Grey prowls about the village taking pot shots at pursuing police while locals hide as best they can.

Harrowing and intense, this ‘based on actual events’ thriller, is a formative example of ‘the cinema of unease’, a term coined by Kiwi film star Sam Neil to describe the nations brooding film style.




Once Were Warriors (1994).

‘Jake The Muss’ is disenfranchised and drinking heavily. His emotional state is precarious, his temper is explosive and his shell-shocked family is riding his chaotic wake, their heads barely above water.

We flocked to the cinema in our droves to see the worst of ourselves writ large on the big screen. It was huge success critically, culturally and financially. Director Lee Tamahori turned New Zealand cinema on its head and actor Temuera Morrison gave the performance of a lifetime. This is not just a great NZ film; this is great cinema.




What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999)

Though not the cinematic powerhouse of Once Were Warriors, sequel What Become of the Broken Hearted has its moments. Jake has calmed down but still struggles with demons and misdemeanours. When his past stands up and slaps him in the face one day he finds himself at a turning point. On offer is opportunity for redemption and he is of two minds. Despite its occasional slide into predictability the film has enough heart to carry it through to a satisfying conclusion.




Forgotten Silver (1995)

Peter Jackson (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) is a force of nature but before the big Hollywood blockbusters came a whole other career that includes a couple of splatter films, a musical helmed by foul mouthed puppets and art-cinema classic Heavenly Creatures, based on another ‘true life’ Kiwi murder.

The killing narrative, it seems, is a right of passage in Kiwi film and Jackson’s done it twice. Controversial The Lovely Bones (2009) was poorly received but it has its defenders including me.

Documentary Forgotten Silver explores the life of pioneering Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie whose achievements included the invention colour and sound film. But there is more, so much more. McKenzie, it appears was a towering genius, confirming the unspoken truth about NZ, that we are indeed a special and blessed people.

It turned out to be a well-executed hoax that left many red-faced and others outraged. It is my favourite Jackson and joke aside, it is a well-made film.




The Locals (2003).

The Waikato is better known as the land that powers the nations behemoth Dairy Industry but it has also been the locale for two of the more interesting films made in this country. The regions capital serves as the backdrop for Geoff Murphy’s 1985 sci-fi mystery The Quiet Earth and the bucolic farmland is the canvas for Greg Page’s supernatural thriller The Locals.

Page migrated to the region from further South in his late youth and cut his teeth making music videos for Hamilton city bands. The Locals is the only feature film in his catalogue but sums up the regions landscape, atmosphere and culture with a clarity no one else has yet too match.

Page: “We wrapped the film and while we were in post-production I went off to see this new movie everyone was talking about and it had the same kind of twist ending as ‘The Locals’. I had been beaten to it.” He was talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.

The Locals is a smartly executed film full of ironic Kiwi sensibility. The soundtrack features superstar Waikato rockers The Datsuns and it flies by at a rapid rate of knots. Much like the Director himself. Criminally underrated it is well deserving of rediscovery and adulation.




The Devil Dared Me To (2007).

The dominant feature of Kiwi film humour is a strain of ironic absurdism not unlike that which you might find in Irish films and when you consider that some six hundred thousand out of a population of four and an half million claim Irish ancestry this seems a reasonable supposition.

As for the narrative: Stuntman Randy Campbell has a dream, he wants to become the world’s greatest stuntman by becoming the first person to leap across Cook on a motorcycle. Before his dream can be realised numerous obstacles have to overcome aka a classic hero’s quest. Base, absurdist, cheesy and surreal The Devil Dared Me Too is as warming as a petrol station pie on a cold day.





What We Do In The Shadows (2014).

Writer Director Taika Waititi has had a phenomenal run at the NZ box office and his films Boy (2010) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) are the two biggest ever-grossing NZ films respectively.

What we do in the Shadows, made in collaboration with Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), was also a big hit and possibly one of the best examples of the dry, ‘straight-faced’ style that dominates Kiwi humour. More cohesive and refined than The Devil Dared Me To it was an instant cult classic. Perhaps our best ‘cult’ product since Hamiltonian Richard O’Brien thought up The Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the late 1960s.




Desperate Remedies (1993).

This is not the kind of film I would choose to see off my own bat but when I asked Geoff Lealand (Associate Professor Film and Media Studies University of Waikato and all-round doyen of all thing cinematic in NZ) what his favourite Kiwi film was he said this.

A surreal psychodrama set in early colonial New Zealand it tastes like a ‘golden age’ MGM spectacular directed by Stanley Kubrick by way of Orson Welles with Ken Russell in as the production supervisor. The result is unique, imagine ‘splatter era’ Peter Jackson on opium. A grand testament to the tightly guarded madness lurking beneath the Kiwi facade.




Worlds Fastest Indian (2005).

Roger Donaldson was born in Australia and migrated to New Zealand (which is confusing in itself as the migration trend is mostly the other way around) and made two defining local films: Sleeping Dogs’ (1977) and Smash Palace (1981).

After a long Hollywood stint he returned to his adopted homeland for The World’s Fastest Indian’ in 2005. Invercargill Burt Munro’s and his Indian go to America and breaks’ a number of motorcycle speed records on the salt flats of Utah along the way. Welshman Anthony Hopkins manages a reasonable facsimile of the Kiwi accent while leading a charming Biopic that is as honest as the day is long.




Sleeping Dogs (1977).

Roger Donaldson’s first film arrived on the scene at the most opportune moment. New Zealand was in moving headlong into a period of social upheaval and many old values were being asked hard questions and found wanting. Authoritarian Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (the model for the PM in the film?) was leading the rear guard action and this usually peaceful and bucolic land was getting restless.

Smith (a somewhat startled looking Sam Neil in his first leading role) is a typically self-possessed Kiwi bloke reluctantly drawn into the fight against a dictatorial fascist government determined to maintain the hard line.

Based on C.K Stead’s 1971 novel Smith’s Dream, this is a parable that set the nation alight and allowed us to imagine ourselves in a different way. Paradigms shifted, new doors were cast wide open and the modern NZ Film Industry was born. What followed was beautiful chaos.





Angel At My Table (1993).

The strange life of NZ writer Janet Frame is explored with inventive flair by Kiwi acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano).

A critical and commercial success this biopic is a riveting portrait of an artist struggling to swim with the tide. Rather than go on, here is a poem by Frame written in the last years of her life. One of the better meditations I have encountered on the subject of ageing and death. The film maintains a narrative of similar quality.


When the Sun Shines More Years than Fear
– Janet Frame

When the sun shines more years than fear
when birds fly more miles than anger
when sky holds more bird
sails more cloud
shines more sun
than the palm of love carries hate,
even then shall I in this weary
seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,
Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,
I have no hunger,
remove my plate.





Honourable Mention:


Came A Hot Friday (1985).

I was not taken by it at all when I saw it many decades ago but many of my peers rate it so out of respect for them and my love of all things Billy T James I have added to the list with the intention of watching it again soon. Based on a novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Came a Hot Friday concerns a couple of Grfiters getting up to all kinds of mischief in Taranaki.

Something of a rogue, Morrieson was not well considered in his Taranaki hometown of Hawera and after he died they pulled down his house to make way for a McDonald’s hoping to expunge his memory from the record. In reality all the locals managed was make Morrieson more famous. All four of Morrison’s novels have been adapted for film, as have two of his short stories.

The film features the late great Billy T James as The Tainuia Kid. According to legend James’s was the Tainuia kid from the moment he arrived on set and remained that way till the shoot was over. James’s ‘Prankster’ character is a testament to the man’s subversive comedic genius.



Billy T James as the Tainuia Kid



Racism in New Zealand

May 28, 2016




Great Aunt Eva was a figure on the families periphery and not long before she died at the age of 92 I sat down with her curious to learn more about her life. I asked why she had never married and she explained that there had been someone once but her intuition warned her against it. He was a heavy drinker who later turned into an alcoholic and drank himself to an early grave. “A close escape,” she mused. For many decades a chain smoker, evident in her heavily wrinkled skin and gravely voice, she cadged a cigarette off me- her last as it turned out- and after a couple of puffs stubbed it out remarking that it held no interest for her anymore.

A career dental assistant and sometime nurse she gave up work to nurse her aged mother through dementia, an all-consuming 15-year affair that come with a high personal and emotional cost. In return for giving up her career to care for her mother her siblings renounced all claims on the families Dairy Farm (at Waharoa near Matamata in the Eastern Waikato) and it was given to her for her dedication to “mum”. With the farm income she lived out a long and comfortable retirement playing golf, spending time with family and travelling the world.

Her mother was Irish and her father a Scot who had been in NZ for several decades living on land he had procured by ballot. (The Liberal government of the late 1900’s had broken up the large family owned estates that dominated the NZ rural landscape at the time and through various schemes most notably the Ballot- a kind of lottery- had enabled people without few means the opportunity to acquire land on easy financial terms). He had developed the land into a productive dairy operation and raised a family and buried a wife before he met my great grandmother who had secured the farm next door, also by ballot.

She was infamously canny with money and she paid for the development of her land by handling the accounts of her neighbours including the Scot next door. Eventually they married, combined the farms and produced 5 children. Eva described a happy and carefree childhood and revealed her parents to be kind, hard working and practical. As she described farm life her thoughts fell to a small group of local Maori, (the former ‘owners’ of the land though Eva would not have considered them as such. The orthodox logic of time held that Maori did not understand the economic potential of land and were therefore poor custodians), who lived in whare made from fern and manuka down the back of the farm where it ended on the banks of the Waihou River.

A remanent population of a much larger tribal group that had been displaced by the land wars of the 1860s, this small isolated group lived on eels fished out of the river and whatever else they could glean which included milk, fruit and vegetables from the Johnstone family farm. “They were dirty ill-kept thieves,” she informed me, “lazy and untrustworthy.” A harsh assessment I thought as I considered their condition.

They had only recently lost their land, their culture had been subsumed and they had been banished to the fringes of the new social order. Being from a co-operative tribal culture I assumed that they saw anything growing on the land as mutual property. I imagined them living in their whare, somewhat bewildered by the momentous changes going on about them, unable to engage because of a lack of education and appropriate language skills and surviving as best they could in the only way they knew how. I explained this perspective to Eva whose eyes widened. She seemed startled at this idea and gathering her thoughts she looked squarely at me and wondered if I might be right?

She died suddenly two days later, the last of a pioneering generation whose immediate forebears had fled social oppression in search of freedom, opportunity and in the case of some at least, a desire to create a nation free of the hierarchical constraints they had left behind in the old country. In many regards they succeeded spectacularly but this was nation of two halves.

Besides the liberal voice seeking social equity there was a more potent and powerful voice determined that this new nation maintain a cultural balance firmly tilted in favour of White, Christian and British. This was to be a progressive society but only for the chosen few. It was also a society determined to undermine its founding document, a formal declaration of partnership between Maori and the British Crown called The Treaty of Waitangi.




A Nations Founding Document.

The heyday of colonialism was stuttering to a close and the Maori encountered the British at time when that Empire had become somewhat more enlightened as regards its responsibilities as a ruling power and in this light the Maori managed to negotiate a treaty the likes of which had not been achieved by any colonised people anywhere through this age of cultural subjection. In brief:

‘The Treaty is a broad statement of principles on which the British and Māori made a political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand. The document has three articles. In the English version, Māori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Māori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell, and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Māori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects’.

– Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ

NZ was a brand spanking new democracy and Maori were full participants from the start and here on these isolated islands at worlds end the two peoples worked and lived side by side fully equal under the law, a state of being somewhat blighted by the European world-view of the time. The wisdom was that the white races were somewhat superior and deserved inheritors of the world a methodology of thinking that led to outrageous treaty breaches as regards land ownership. As a result Maori were often violently disrespected, insulted and manipulated endlessly by a system that promised much but seldom delivered on those promises.

Perhaps this fight for Maori equality is best exemplified through the story of the Maori Battalion, a much-eulogised unit of the NZ army that fought valiantly on several fronts through World War Two. Maori leaders at the time hoped that but fighting harder faster and better than anyone else Pakeha would wake from their dream of superiority start to treat Maori more with respect.

It didn’t happen and as late as 1960 the South Auckland town of Pukekohe banned Maori from hotel bars, barbershops and general seating in movie theatres. This was neither standard nor unusual and wholly against the spirit of the law and the Treaty of Waitangi. It was also a glaring reflection of the attitudes at work in the hearts of many Pakeha and by the 1970s rolled around Maori had had enough and started exerting themselves to the fright of the nation. Almost 40 years later Maori now compensated, consulted and recipients of all manner of formalised apologies are still considered by much of mainstream culture as second rate though few in their right mind would ever dare say so out loud.

A friend recalls being on a course with a Maori guy who she described as pleasant but somewhat haunted. Though they talked extensively and got to know each other well he would never meet her eyes, a trait which upset her. She queried this and he confided that next to Pakeha he felt like a second-class citizen and a lesser human being. To him this feeling was visceral and kept him form fulfilling his potential as a citizen, which was why he was on this particular course: seeking a solution to his pain and confusion.

120 years of land confiscations and cultural subjugation had taken a psychological toll of the sort that scars the intergenerational psyche and this troubled man was but a symptom of this scarring. This pain has manifested itself through mental illness, anger and emotional dislocation serving the behavioural dysfunction that many Pakeha identify as a Maori trait.




A Covertly Racist Society.

The Maori were not the only people to suffer from Pakeha notions racial superiority. Until the 1960s immigration laws were covertly structured to exclude or dissuade anyone not of British or Irish origin including Indians, a policy that was seriously questioned by the UK who considered Indians to be British subjects. While Scandinavian’s, Czech’s, German’s and French got a relatively easy time (NZ often struggled to find enough suitable migrants and when quotas were not filled, Western Europe was the next best stop though few could be persuaded to travel so far from home) the more exotic Dalmatian’s (a major migrant group originating from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast) found themselves restricted and frequently victimised by laws designed to favour people of British heritage.

During the Second World War NZ accepted 734-orphaned Polish children at the behest of the Polish government in exile. These children infamously found themselves in a climate informed by suspicion and prejudice and were hardly able to cope unlike the robust working class Dutch adults who, fulfilling NZ’s requirements for white similarity, flooded a post war country desperate for skilled tradesmen. Many came from the former Dutch colony of Indonesia and some unfortunates discovered that even a drop of Indonesian blood disqualified them as suitable migrant material.

Early Chinese migrants lured here by the prospect of finding riches on the Otago goldfields in the 1860’s encountered appalling racism and a tax designed to discourage them. The nation was wary of the ‘Yellow Peril’ (it was feared that the Chinese might overrun us through sheer force of numbers) and besides they were heathen opium smokers with strange ways. In 2002 the NZ Government formally apologised to the local Chinese community for past injustices yet despite this acknowledgement the Chinese remain the first port of call when the media need someone to blame for whatever trouble is about- everything from bad driving to property prices.

That same year the Government also apologised to Western Samoa for the abuse this community suffered while a colony of New Zealand (1920-35), which brings to mind the 1970s and the lot of Polynesian migrants who had arrived in droves through the 1950s to fill labour shortages in factories. By the 1970s the economy was undergoing decline and these same migrants were now a useful scapegoat for governments seeking easy solutions to complex problems.

These events, much like our cosy relationship with apartheid era South Africa stand today as rank examples of how low Pakeha can sink when given the chance. With South Africa we reached a kind of nadir when we succumbed time and again to requests from the apartheid -era South African government to exclude players of colour from touring the country with the All-Blacks.

The Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, played their first match against the NZ Natives during their 1921 tour of NZ and it was reported that it disgusted them. The All-Blacks excluded Maori players from their 1928 South African tour at the request of the South African government and though the Springbok refused to play a ‘native’ team on their 1937 visit to NZ, Maori were not excluded from the All-Blacks.

In 1959 the All-Blacks were invited to tour South Africa and again were asked to leave out players of colour. The outrage at this grievous insult to Maori reached fever pitch with 160,000 people signing an anti-tour petition and thousands more marching down the mainstreets of the nation in protest, all to no-avail.

The rugby field was the one place where Maori and Pakeha found unity and common cause and with this decision the Pakeha administered game of Rugby, blinded by its own self-regard, handed Maori one hell of a slap in the face proving once again that despite the promise of Waitangi, this was a Pakeha country and when push cam to shove, Maori be damned. It took until 1981 for the Rugby Union to change its ways and only after some of the most virulent public protests this country has ever seen.

A Department of External Affairs memorandum from 1953 stated: “Our immigration is based firmly on the principle that we are and intend to remain a country of European development. It is inevitably discriminatory against Asians – indeed against all persons who are not wholly of European race and colour. Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.’

By the 1960s NZ began to re-examine its ideas about race and culture and in 1971 the then Prime Minister Norman Kirk argued that our future as a people lay with Asia and the Pacific and we should no longer judge migrants on colour, race and religion. Finally we had begun our long march toward a better standard of human regard.


Pākehā is a Māori language term for New Zealanders who are “of European descent.”

Eva, like many of her generation, had never stopped to properly examine the circumstance of the Maori and her experience with a small and disparate band without means living at on the margins had forever framed her outlook, an outlook not uncommon amongst Pakeha of that era. I remember as a child listening to adults publically describing Maori in less than generous terms. By the time I had become an adult the only thing that had changed was that now it that it had become unacceptable to voice these kinds of thoughts out loud and in public. The terms had changed but the method has become more surreptitious.

Maori had bent under the weight on the Pakeha onslaught but eventually sprung back and using Pakeha law, the same law that undid them in the first place, forced the nation to address injustice and while Pakeha have finally acknowledged their treaty obligations certain attitudes remain unchanged (though not unchallenged). Comments behind closed doors like “I am not racist but………” and devious jokes designed to belittle and reinforce stereotypical notions of Maoridom sadly abound. Despite our shared history, Maori remain in many minds the somewhat lesser cousin: tolerated, occasionally respected but somehow never quite up to the mark.

Ides of racial superiority have morphed into resentment about the cost of Treaty, which really hasn’t cost much considering the current value of land and its bounty. Mostly the treaty cash has given Maori enterprise capital and across the nation tribes have been building profitable endeavours that have contributed not insubstantially to the overall wealth and wellbeing of the nation.

Pakeha judgement casts a long shadow and while we deny our racism but it is an undeniable undercurrent that haunts perception. Parliamentary speeches going back a century demonstrate that alongside discriminating and dissenting voices are other voices that recognise the plight of Maori and have long sought redress and redemption. It has been a long battle that remains unresolved in many hearts and minds here in Aotearoa.




Racism Is Alive and Well Though Not Unchallenged.

There is a strain of decency running deep through the heart of Pakeha culture but when confronted by challenges to the cultural status quo we often slip into racial cliché and confused garbling as we seek to reconsider the world and our position in it. Not all of us, but an aspect of us and this reaction is natural if misshapen. Eva was an average person of her time whose truth was shaped by a particular mythology about the world and the white persons place in it. It is a mythology that no longer dominates but regardless Pakeha racism remains alive and active.

I remember my first day as Sales Manager for an Auckland company in 2010. I opened the previous managers company email to discover that some of the staff were sharing anti-Maori jokes. I confronted the people in question and were met with shame-faced denials. I understood that these actions were more to do with thoughtlessness than anything else, much like the words I encountered one day while travelling across Hamilton on a city bus.

I was the helpless and unfortunate witness to a very loud conversation between a group of Pakeha high school girls sitting in the seat immediately behind me. “Where do get off?” asks one girl of another. The girl explains and her companion responds “Oh, that’s a dirty Maori suburb.” “Yeah I know,” she responded, “I hate Maoris.” Her friend laughs “Oh me too.” Sitting behind them were several Maori, both young and old. Like me I am sure they had no choice but to hear and I felt shocked and upset for them, myself and the girls in question. Sometimes ignorance is simply what it is and sometimes it is wilful. I hope in this case it was just plain old ignorance informed by youthful thoughtlessness.


On the bright side I spent several hours on the streets of Auckland talking to Asian and Indian students about Kiwi’s and racism. The response was positive and along the lines of “Kiwi’s are very nice and helpful and no, I have not encountered any racism.” The only negative came from a group of Saudi Arabian boys who were angry at the way Kiwi men interacted with women. “The have no respect, they treat woman as friends and equals and this is against our culture.” To a tee they found this offensive and especially so in regard to their female compatriots. “Kiwi men should not talk with them in such a friendly manner, this is very bad and they insult us when they chat with strangers the way they should only chat with their sisters or mother.”

Culture is a complex thing and should be navigated with care and informed consideration by all sides. Too often this is not the case and results are not pretty. My immediate mental response to these boys was to think “your cultural perspective is outdated” and perhaps I should have said something but I remembered another conversation with a young Saudi woman who is in NZ studying computer science. (She chose NZ because of its reputation for peace, safety and kindness).

Her widowed father, guardian to a family of daughters, did not see the world in this way at all and his daughter described him as “enlightened” and “encouraging”. This and stories I has been reading about female activism in part of the world give me hope that the outlook of these boys is essentially doomed. History is against them and the wars raging across the Middle East at this time are in part but a response to the momentous changes sweeping through the hearts and minds in the Middle East. New ideas about culture and society are displacing the old and the old is responding with anger, the only method it has left in its fight to remain relevant.


Changing Attitudes.

NZ has come a long way over the last 50 odd years. This once racist society has overcome its worst tendencies and is now ranked consistently among the world’s most open and progressive societies. It is a socially bold young nation and our ability to overcome our worst tendencies is a great lesson for the world at large. We must never forget the wrongs that we have perpetuated and the ease at which we often gravitate toward the lowest common denominator but nor should be underestimate our strong collective impulse for better and fairer.

This is a nation without a formal document to define us, our constitution is unwritten but it exists deep in our communal heart. It asks us to be fair and decent, to live and let live, to be trustworthy, virtuous and honest, to consider those with less and to be compassionate in our approach to all things. Pakeha follow this method vigorously as regards other Pakeha but sometimes forget that ‘me’ is actually ‘we’ and that ‘we’ includes Maori, Asian, Polynesian, Indian and all the other diverse peoples with whom we share these islands.

Resentments and misunderstanding still discolour the relationship between the two peoples central to the life of this nation and there is still much healing required before Maori can properly stand tall amidst humanities vast cultural swirl and as for Pakeha…… a little more self-reflective soul searching would do us all a world of good.

The future is a world is one where humanity is not defined by colour, religion or sexuality but by the quality of our actions. Some of us already know this, some are still learning it, others deny it and some have yet to consider it. This is humanity in motion today, an evolving broader culture fuelled by better access to information available beyond the old physical and mental borders that defined us before the age of super-fast communications.

Racism is composed of many factors, some being informed by an instinctual mistrust of strangers (those whose colour and culture are different to our own) and others being informed by social conditioning. I remember as a child being possessed of negative racial notions toward Maori and others, notions inherited from my family and community but as I grew into myself I discovered that these feeling were not my own and I was able to easily shuck them off. To my relief I discovered that I was essentially colour blind and that I viewed culture not as an irrefutable natural law set in stone, rather as a series of habits: some good, some bad making culture –in my mind at least – a malleable method of social organisation capable of positive evolution.

When I sat down to write this story I had little idea of the journey and challenges ahead and how little I actually knew about my own cultures racist past. The research, thinking and consideration has been a cathartic experience that has done my heart and mind a world of good. This effort has better informed me, altered my perceptions and made me better than I was. Who could ask for more?



Though I did not agree with her brand of middle class Pakeha politics I always liked Eva and we become great friends towards the end of her life. I will forever remain grateful to her for that conversation as it sparked something in me that facilitated change. I lived and worked in a small community whose conservative social views clashed with my own my liberal inclinations and still young and unsure of my own voice I had gotten used to nodding my head in agreement with things I did not agree with in order to maintain peace. After that encouraging talk with Eva I felt less inclined to do so and with her death following soon after it freed me of the need to consider regard when discussing difficult topics with loved ones.

Besides the sunroom, kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom Eva kept the rest of her 1940s brick and tile house in the Hamilton suburb of Hillcrest effectively sealed. She had no need of it and kept the heavy curtains tightly drawn. The house was dark, cool and quiet, an odd oasis of peace. She was dutiful, cared for her extended family and possessed a good heart capable of grand sacrifice and I could not help but think that has she been born back in Ireland she might have spent out her days serving as a Nun.

Whenever I called in National Radio was playing in the background and the Herald and the Listener were spread out on the little table in the cosy sunroom out the back. She loved Winston Peters and his brand of opportunistic politics: “I like what he says,” she would say but I was never going to agree with her on that topic so I kept my mouth shut and let her talk.

She was a champion of the golf player and several engraved cups in the cabinet at the Walton course where she was a member are probably the only physical proofs left outside her gravestone to remind us that she once walked the earth. Those who knew her in person are now few and far between. Eva is buried at the cemetery off Morrinsville Road near Hamilton and lies next to her beloved mother, Mary. Her time was due as were her generations general attitudes toward non-Pakeha peoples.




Prosperity and Austerity: A Brief History of the Economic Tensions that Define Modern New Zealand.

March 22, 2016


John A Lee 1936.

John A Lee: Portrait of a Well Meaning Extremist.

John A Lee was 21 when the First World War broke out. He had been on the road since he was 14, sleeping rough and eating inadequately. He had been in and out of institutions (mostly for petty theft) and had picked up tuberculosis somewhere along the way. Not especially interested in the idea of fighting for King and Country he nevertheless volunteered immediately imaging death on the battlefield preferable to death in a hospital bed if that was the way his disease was going to take him. It was the condition of his lungs kept him out of uniform but he persisted and with the help of an understanding Doctor was finally able to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1916. He often said that he went to war as an observer and not as an ardent soldier nevertheless his time in service was remarkable.

He singlehandedly captured four German soldiers manning a machine gun emplacement on the Wytschaete Road near Messines in Belgium in 1916 and later that same year saved his Taranaki Company from a machine gun nest when he and two others crept up around behind it and captured forty two men and two machine guns. His left forearm was amputated after he was caught in an explosion during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 and his war was over. For his efforts he was awarded the DCM, The Distinguished Conduct Medal.

His war adventures go some way toward describing his character and temperement but only pain half the picture. Born in 1891 he was the child of a solo mother in a time when such a thing was considered shocking. (His father was by all accounts a wild and charismatic entertainer with a gambling habit). His siblings shared different fathers and his mother often sought charitable help to keep everyone fed. He described their family life as one of ‘grinding poverty.’

He attended school infrequently and drifted into a life of petty crime. A sometime ward of the state he experienced the harsh indignities of the workhouse/borstal system (the infamous Burnham Industrial School) an experience that was to inform him for the rest of his life. An incorrigible escapee he was often on the run and through various misadventures learned the art of subterfuge in order to maintain his freedom.

He educated himself at provincial libraries and remained a voracious reader throughout his life. He was a particular and devoted student of socialist writers Jack London and Upton Sinclair and by the time he joined the army he was so deeply committed to the concept of socialism that he was nicked named ‘Bolshie Lee.’ His last jail stint ended in 1913 after he was released from Mt Eden Prison for smuggling alcohol into the King Country.

*Liquor was prohibited in the King Country for more than 70 years although tales of ‘sly groggers’ who smuggled alcohol into the district abound. Prohibition began in and ended on 13th November 1954 after the locals voted for an end in a referendum.

His 1963 book ‘Simple on a Soapbox’ was Lee’s account of his time in the first Labour Government and addressed his the events that lead to his expulsion from the Labour party and was one of the three books on the shelf of my childhood home that weren’t Readers Digest Condensed Books. I used to wonder at the title and often took it down to examine the cover art, a sort of modernist style sketch that I found endlessly fascinating.

Of course the subject matter itself was way and afar beyond my ability to understand but not so his autobiographical work ‘Children of the Poor’ which I found later in the school library. A rip-roaring account of his time in institutions and on the run from the law it is also a powerful political polemic that takes square aim at the social and economic injustices Lee was keen to expunge from society. I was shocked and moved by Lee’s portrait of social injustice in New Zealand and experienced my own first primitive political stirrings as a result.

I later learned that this book created quite a storm when it was published in 1934 lifting the veil as did on mainstream attitudes toward the poor, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. His critics accused him of overstating his case and exaggerating his experiences nevertheless it was an influential work that sold by the truckload and stirred much debate and reflective soul searching.

Lee, variously described as charismatic, fiery, impetuous and witty, believed that New Zealand was uniquely placed to create a unique brand of democratic socialism that recognised the nations inherent individualistic qualities (i.e. that perhaps socialist collectivism was not the best method for our primary industries) while providing for the disenfranchised and standing up for the rights of the workers.

With the tsunami of the Great Depression sweeping over the land Lee wrote ‘We are living in an ethical twilight, with the ideals of the new in our hearts and the pattern of the old upon our minds.’ In his mind Capitalism was collapsing and all societies had to choose, he believed, between fascist reaction and socialism. ‘We will lead you on a march that will inspire the whole of the earth’ he prophesied and indeed, the experiments of first Labour Government (1935) were closely watched and had a profound influence on many societies seeking solutions to the challenge of the Great Depression.

Lee was first elected to parliament in 1922 (the youngest ever MP at that time), lost in 1928 and won again in 1935 with single biggest majority ever achieved in the young nations history but despite his value to the party as an orator, policy maker and charismatic frontman (as a war hero his presence was invaluable), his impetuous and fiery temperament set off warning bells with the parties leadership.

Savage Vs Lee



Michael Joseph Savage on the campaign trail

Like Lee, Michael Joseph Savage came from a background marked by poverty and hard labour and like Lee he was a self-educated and well-read socialist and with that education came a desire to improve the lot of the working person. Savage, who was a first hand witness to the tragic lot of the working poor and socially disenfranchised, described his take on socialism as ‘true Christianity in action’ a political philosophy that was interested primarily in social and economic justice rather than hard-core socialist ideology. In Savage’s mind, capitalism wasn’t beyond redemption, a position that was at odds with radicals like Lee who believed that capitalism was essentially a failure. This difference in perspective proved the breaking point in a friendship that had had otherwise been very close.

Savage had inherited the leadership of the party after his predecessor and fellow Australian Harry Holland died suddenly of a heart attack while attending the funeral of the Maori King in 1933, an accession that was rigorously opposed by Lee who felt that Savage was too cautious in his approach yet in the eyes of the electorate, then as now suspicious of extremism, the centrist and conciliatory Savage was the perfect figure for the day and carried Labour to their first electoral win in a landslide victory in 1935.

Lee began to resent Savage and Savage become wary of Lee (describing him as ‘too wild and unconventional’) and despite Lee’s obvious abilities as an organiser and manager; Savage kept him at arms length. The frustrated Lee did not help his case for a Cabinet position with a constant stream of abusive backbiting aimed directly at Savage whose considered approach to change clashed with Lee’s radical urgency.

In 1938 Savage fell ill with colon cancer but he postponed the required surgery focused as he was on a raft of reforms and the looming European war. Sensing opportunity in Savage’s misfortune Lee stepped up his campaign against him with the publication of an essay in 1940 titled ‘Psychopathology in Politics’ which implied that Savage’s physical condition had destroyed him mentally.

Savage responded at that years Labour Party Conference by stating that Lee had made ‘ two years my life a living hell with all the venom and lying innuendo of the political sewer, using my illness to destroy me as a political force’. As a result Lee was expelled from the Labour Party and 24 hours later, early on 27 March 1940, Savage died at his home in Wellington.

Lee had been undone by his inability to control the aspects of his nature that allowed him such success on the field of battle. His temerity given full reign became an obsessive urge that undermined his position in Labour’s inner circle, and whatever he thought about Savage, the party and public did not agree.

Lee’s response was to launch a new political movement called the Democratic Labour Party renamed the Democratic Soldier Labour Party for the 1943 elections. Lee’s autocratic leadership style had a negative impact on the new party and confirmed that Labour’s decision to keep him out of the central leadership had been a wise one. Lee lost his Grey Lynn seat and political career was effectively over. He devoted the rest of his life to writing, critiquing Labour (‘Labour is a despotic machine, hostile to democratic values, and victim of an unholy alliance of greedy unionism with corrupt politicians’) and running a successful bookshop, Vital Books. He died at his home in 1982, aged 91.


Reform Within Capitalism

Savage’s government of reform shaped the economic and social direction of New Zealand for decades to come creating in the process not only one of the world’s wealthiest nations, but also one of the fairest. 40 years after Savage’s historic victory, NZ had the distinction of having the most equitable distribution of wealth in the world.

Despite their differences Lee and Savage helped transform the nature of the society they had inherited. Dispensing with the social and economic traditions inherited from Britain, they and their contemporaries set NZ on a new course of economic self-determination that made humanitarian concerns the central factor of economic policy and the process redefining the nature of nationhood and the purpose of society.

Labour won 4 consecutive elections before losing the government benches in 1949. It would be 8 years before they would govern again. In the meantime the new conservative National party government maintained Labour’s ‘cradle to the grave’ universalist welfare state, building on those early foundations and further enhancing NZ’s status as a world leading social laboratory.

Tension is a defining factor in any robust democracy and in New Zealand this tension has manifested itself in a endless tug of war between private and public interests and the challenge of governments, both of the political left and right, has been to maintain a balance that does not tip the scale too far in either direction. As New Zealand matured as a democracy one thing became certain to among most political players, this electorate did not tolerate extremism, favouring instead a sense of fair play that considered the needs of the majority above the needs of the few. A delicate balance that governments by in large maintained successfully until the 1980s when the nation set itself on a new direction.

With Lee’s passing in 1982 the nation buried the last of the reforming architects of the 1930s. Two years later that legacy became the target of a robust ideological war of attrition that was to become the defining hallmark of that decade. The 4th Labour government introduced free-market liberalism by stealth.

The previous conservative government headed by the autocratic Robert Muldoon was a strange mix of heavy-handed interventionist socialism and conservative social values that divided the community on a series of issues. The early 1980’s were marked by anxiety and an atmosphere of tension as New Zealand examined itself with rigorous intensity. By the time the 1984 election rolled around the electorate was ready for change. The nation had looked into itself and did not like what it was seeing and a new Labour government with revolutionary social agenda marched triumphantly into office.

Led by the charismatic David Lange this government was ready to met all the expectations of a community ready to take a bold step forward into the future but for one factor. The new minister of finance Roger Douglas surprised everyone, including the party itself, with a reformist economic agenda that was totally at odds with Labour’s traditions. Trade barriers were dismantled, financial rules were loosened, unions were disempowered and much of the nations state owned infrastructure was sold off in what could be described as a knee-jerk reaction to the previous forty years of state control.

The Doors to Fortress NZ were thrown wide open and the nation was set to wheel and deal its way to a new level of prosperity, or so the sale pitch went. With hindsight it is easily argued that the economy was due an overhaul and some liberalisation was necessary but for ordinary working Kiwis the extent of the changes came as a psychological shock. None of the caution of Savage here, this was the anti-Lee given full reign.

The government fractured, warped and ate itself as the reformists argued for further and more radical economic liberalisation while the traditionalists called time saying enough was enough. A new conservative government elected in 1990 took up the argument.

Centrist Prime Minister Jim Bolger held his radicals in check for a considerable time before being rolled by the extremist faction headed by Jenny Shipley. The nations first female Prime Minister was an avowed right wing conservative of limited ability whose biggest fault was her lack of perception regarding the wider electorate and its intolerance for ideological politics. Mistaking her inner circles enthusiasm for extreme reform as the pulse of the nation she found herself quickly and unceremoniously dumped at the next available election.

Since then the electorate has selected economically centrist governments dedicated to New Zealand’s tradition of social progressiveness but 81 years after the first Labour government addressed the dire social condition of working people, our love affair with unfettered free market economics has bought us perilously close to that which we left behind many decades ago.

Today our income disparity rates among the widest in the developed world, total combined national debt has reached staggering heights and many of the acquired rights of working people have been watered down if not struck for the law books. Child poverty is at it’s worst since the 1930s and public housing is being sold off at a time when the working poor are finding it difficult to pay the rent.

The official response from the current conservative government has consistently been “there is no poverty in New Zealand,” or in other words, “nothing to see hear move along,” a similar response to the conservatives of yore as they faced the looming threat of the Great Depression.

In early 2016 comments from the conservative Minister of Finance Bill English warned that a period of ‘Austerity’ might be necessary to address national debt. As with the rest of the developed world the conceit in New Zealand has been that that it is the Corporations and wealthy individuals who create jobs and that by providing them with tax breaks we are encouraging them in their noble endeavours.

These tax breaks have been instrumental in powering the nations debt as the government has been borrowing to fill the gap between tax revenue and the needs of the community. The statistical evidence reminds us that it is in actually small business that provides for the bulk of working people yet the mythology overstating the contribution of the 1% persists meaning that ‘Austerity’ will be directed at those who can least afford to bear it.

I return here to John A Lee. In 1932 he persuaded the Labour Party to organise mass meetings to address the conservative governments ‘retrenchment’ response to the Great Depression. At a meeting in Dunedin Lee declared: ‘we are at war against those who are trying to drag the people down to degradation and poverty. We are starving our way to prosperity in a world of plenty, and it can’t be done’.



My grandfather Bill was a young Dairy farmer in 1935 when the Savage led Labour government came to power. The price for butterfat was low, his debt was high and like so many other farmers he was wondering if he was going to lose his land. Lee and Savage were monetary reformers determined to use the mechanics of the banking system to benefit the nations people and the plan was use Reserve Bank credit to pay Dairy Farmers a guaranteed price for butterfat. (This was one of the areas of disagreement between the two men. Lee wanted to take the use of reserve band credit much further than Savage was prepared to do. Savage preferred a more orthodox approach using a mix of conventional debt borrowing and government credit fearing inflationary kickbacks if too much new money was set loose in the economy).

Bill had been to see both Lee and Savage speak and returned to the farm convinced by their plan and besides the ruling conservatives (the traditional party of the farmers) had nothing offer beyond belt tightening.

The first Labour Government paid Dairy farmers a pound for a pound of butterfat, more than enough to shore up the farms finances. It allowed him and his contemporaries the income to invest in their local dairy Co-Operatives and create solid middle class lives for their families. For the rest of his life my grandfather spoke fondly of both Savage and Lee and the differences these men made to his life.

My paternal grandfather, forever after a proponent of monetary reform (using the Reserve Bank to create and distribute debt free money to stimulate growth and pay for the necessities that couldn’t be covered through general taxation) shared something of Lee’s suspicion of overly powerful Unions (in order to strengthen the position of working people in society the first Labour government had made unionism compulsory and thereby powerful, a power which many, including Lee, claimed made them somewhat corrupt) and transferred his vote to Lee’s Democratic Labour movement hence the books pride of place on the families bookshelf.

I grew up in the 1960 and 70s safe in the bosom of a middle-income family, the third generation to be raised on that piece of land my grandfather had wrested from infertile former swampland. We were not rich but neither did we want for anything and there was never any doubt that our prosperity was due to the likes of Lee and Savage. Their story is not history; rather it is a prescient tale about the swings and roundabouts of political fashion, a story that reminds us that when testing times come knocking complacent orthodoxy is not the solution but then neither is radical extremism. The truth lies always in the vast grey rather in the carefully drawn black and white and best of New Zealand has always been found in that grey.

Government has a sacred duty to step up when times are tough and provide where private interests cannot and will not and to ensure that the needs of ordinary citizens are adequately provided for. Contemplating the heady times of the 1930’s and the approaching Austerity of 2016 I realise as much as everything has changed, so much stays the same. I am also reminded of the importance of perspective, a quality valued little the arena of ideology.

Books by John A Lee:

  • Children of the Poor, 1934.
  • The Hunted, 1936.
  • Civilian into Soldier, 1937.
  • Socialism in New Zealand, 1938.
  • The Yanks are Coming, 1943.
  • Shining with the Shiner, 1944.
  • Simple on a Soapbox, 1963.
  • Shiner Slattery, 1964
  • Rhetoric at the Red Dawn, 1965.
  • The Lee Way to Public Speaking, 1965
  • Delinquent Days, 1967.
  • Mussolini’s Millions, 1970
  • Political Notebooks, 1973.
  • For Mine is the Kingdom, 1975
  • Soldier, 1976
  • The Scrim-Lee Papers. 1976 (with CG Scrimgeour & Tony Simson)
  • Roughnecks, Rolling Stones & Rouseabouts, 1977
  • Early Days in New Zealand, 1977
  • The John A. Lee Diaries 1936–1940, 1981



John A Lee 1981, the year before his death